WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Friday called for quick implementation of an agreement between Ukraine's president and the opposition to end violence, yet warned the deal was fragile and that it could prove difficult to persuade hard-line protesters to lay down their weapons.
The two sides in Ukraine are fighting over whether the nation of 46 million will have closer ties to the West or to Russia. The protests began in late November after Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych turned away from a long-anticipated deal for closer ties with the European Union. After Yanukovych shelved the agreement with the EU, Russia announced a $15 billion bailout for economically battered Ukraine.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the deal, which restores a previous constitution that limits presidential powers, was consistent with what Washington was advocating, but he added that the U.S. will closely monitor whether there is concrete action to put it in motion.
The White House has been considering levying sanctions on officials in Ukraine who were responsible for stoking the violence, but Carney indicated that the U.S. would hold off while monitoring the implementation of Friday's accord.
"Our focus today is on working with our European partners as well as the government and the opposition in Ukraine to ensure the agreement's implementation," Carney said. "We are not ruling out sanctions to hold those responsible for the violence accountable, especially should there be further violence or violation of the agreement."
A senior State Department official, who is closely following the unrest in Ukraine, downplayed tensions that have developed between the U.S. and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, depicting President Barack Obama's more than one-hour call on Friday to Russian President Vladimir Putin as constructive. The official was not authorized to be quoted by name and would brief reporters only on condition of anonymity.
According to the official, their conversation was about the opportunity that the agreement has provided to stabilize Ukraine, end violence and provide a peaceful outcome and that Russia wants to be part of implementing the agreement. It was a commitment that Ukraine has been pulled back from the brink and that all parties need to be supportive of reaching political unity and getting the economy of the nation back on track, the official said.
The official said Putin did not complain during the call that the U.S. was meddling in the Ukraine, once a satellite of the former Soviet Union.
The State Department official described the agreement as "very, very fragile" and said that the opposition had a "hard sell" in persuading protesters to disarm and end their standoff with the government.
In recent days, there has been a flurry of telephone diplomacy between U.S. officials and leaders in Ukraine.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev, by phone on Friday. Lebedev told Hagel that Ukraine's military won't use weapons against its people and that their deployment focused on protecting military facilities, the Pentagon said in a statement.
Hagel commended Ukraine's move to keep the military on the sidelines of the crisis, the Pentagon said. The U.S. defense chief had tried several times to reach Lebedev earlier in the week but, according to the Pentagon, those calls were not accepted.
In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on Friday with three senior members of the opposition to express continued support, and Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for Europe, spoke with the foreign minister of the Ukraine. On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden had a more than hourlong conversation with the Ukraine president — their ninth call since November, the official said.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is expected to travel to Kiev early next week and Nuland is slated to be in the Ukraine in early March, the official said.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.